Friday, February 26, 2021

FFB: Dead of Winter - Christopher Hale

One day last week I was literally snowbound and decided to dig into my various winter themed murder mysteries which led me to Dead of Winter (1941) by Christopher Hale. Initially, I had set aside a small pile of Hale mysteries for a post on the series character Lt. Bill French for my ongoing "Neglected Detectives" blog feature. However, this introduction to Hale (yes, it’s the first book I’ve ever read by “him’) and French was such a winner that I had to highlight the book in a solo post.

THE STORY:  A ski party turns deadly when a monstrous blizzard —98” according to a radio emergency weather report!—leaves a group of Michigan friends stranded in the home of Mrs. Enid Beauregard while a killer targets the guests.

THE CHARACTERS:  Brett Collins is our narrator who introduces us to the various guests who include her fiancé Hadley, itching to get a loan of $10,000 from anyone who will listen to him; Homer Bence, a 62 year-old plumbing salesman and former business partner of Enid’s ex-husband; jovial boyish Norman Prescott and his oddly aloof girlfriend Judy; Rhoda Norwood, a flighty blond known for her award-winning golfing skill and almost equal skiing talent; and Capt. Toby Woodward, Hadley’s rich uncle who spends much of his time chasing women. Brett is his latest would-be conquest. In fact, he daringly proposes marriage to her practically in front of Hadley. Rhoda is not happy about that, however, for she is in love with Toby. This sets up a houseful of volatile emotions, passionate tempers and money grubbing relatives. Toby has murder victim written all over him from the moment he appears and it’s not long before he fears for his life.

He claims that his bedside glass of water had been poisoned. He demands someone give him a container so he can pour in a sample of the tainted water and head out into the storm to the police station so that it can be tested. He’s already sampled the water and it tastes oddly bitter. Homer also tastes the water and says it has definitely been spiked with something. With that second opinion out in the open Toby storms up to his room promising to suit up for the blizzard and trek the four miles to town on his snowshoes. After an entire days passes and Toby does not return everyone is afraid something horrible has happened.

Hadley goes snooping in Toby’s bedroom when his uncle does not return. He find his wallet now empty of its original $500. Beneath the bed Hadley finds the container with the poisoned water as well as a tray holding his uncle’s dental bridge. How could Capt. Woodward have left the house without any of those things? To leave behind the poison sample is the most alarming as that was his reason for leaving the house in the first place. Hadley confides in Brett and suspects that someone has killed Toby. But where is the body?

When the police finally show up landing in a seaplane on the semi-frozen lake nearby and do a thorough search of the area Captain Woodward’s body is found frozen solid in a ravine. Was it an accident? Did he lose his way in the storm? Lose his balance perhaps and fall? Or was he sent toppling to his death? Evidence proves he was killed his face his smashed in as if he fell or was shoved in to the ground and yet the body was found face up in the snow. Lt. Bill French implies that Woodward’s body was moved from the original spot where he died. French has several theories and is leaning towards murder, but he tells everyone they will have to wait for autopsy results to learn if Toby was drugged or poisoned.

INNOVATIONS:  The story is filled with all sorts of nifty bits – a curious cat turns up dead in someone’s bedroom; someone is nearly killed by a tree felled for firewood; someone monkeying around with poison bottles and chloroform; and a second murder is pulled off in a locked and almost sealed room. Only the window is open and yet there are no footprints beneath the snow-covered ground below. How did the murderer get out of the room? Forgery, stolen objects, and bigamy also feature in the plot. Everyone, of course, has a well-guarded secret, most of all the murderer.

INFLUENCES: The more I sampled of Dead of Winter the more I got strong flavor accents of Mignon Eberhart. Hale manages to create a creepy atmosphere and a well maintained sense of paranoia and claustrophobia both aspects that permeate most of Eberhart’s murder mysteries. Like Dead of Winter Eberhart’s mysteries also tend to feature small groups of suspects in isolated environments. Having a woman protagonist who filters all the characters personalities through her viewpoint also had a heavy Eberhart vibe. Additionally, the narrative mirrors Eberhart’s favorite ploy of making the female narrator’s love interest the primary suspect, a fictional convention Eberhart pioneered and so often imitated throughout the 1930s and early 1940s by mostly women writers who saw Eberhart as the idol of the American mystery novel that it became a formulaic trope for decades after and continues to this day. Hale does a brilliant job of shifting blame and suspicion among her characters but laying it thick on Hadley. For a while it seems that no one else could possibly be the killer. Then we have two other possibilities with stronger motives and opportunity. Finally, in a last minute twist Hale pulls out her wild card and slaps it on the table. I was truly surprised in the ingeniously done finale.

Frances Ross Stevens
aka "Christopher Hale"

THE AUTHOR:  There is not much about Christopher Hale on the internet, primarily because it is a pseudonym. Once I started hunting under the writer’s real name I hit some gold. In the December 14, 1947 issue of Detroit Free Press I found the obituary of Frances Ross Stevens (1895 – 1947), the true identity behind the pen name of “Christopher Hale.” Over on the left is the photo that accompanied the obituary -- perhaps the only photo of Stevens in the whole of the internet. Note that the date of her death has been inaccurately reported all over the internet, she died one year earlier than 1948.

Stevens appeared to be married based on her name, but nothing was mentioned about her husband who she either divorced or who predeceased her. Stevens grew up in Michigan, the setting for most of her mystery novels, and had two brothers and one sister, Margaret, who was also a writer. She died at the home of her brother William Ross in the well-to-do Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan where apparently her other siblings also lived. According to Ellen Nehr's research in Crime Club Compendium Stevens worked as an advertising copywriter in Cincinnati and Detroit prior to moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan and becoming a full time novelist. With the exception of her first book, Smoke Screen (1935), all her mystery novels were published by the esteemed “Crime Club” imprint of Doubleday Doran. Her mysteries were regularly reviewed in Kirkus Reviews, The Saturday Review and the New York Times with consistently favorable write-ups that called attention to her clever plotting, engaging characters and often humorous dialogue.

Lt. Bill French Detective Novels 
Smoke Screen
Stormy Night (1937)
Murder on Display (1939)
Witch Wood (1940)
Dead of Winter (1941)
Exit Screaming (1942)
Murder in Tow (1943)
Hangman's Tie (1943)
Midsummer Nightmare (1945)
Rumor Hath It (1945)
Deadly Ditto
He's Late This Morning (1949)
Going, Going, Gone (1950) - published only in the UK
 (NOTE: This is not a UK title of a previously published US title. You'll find this claim on various websites and it's wrong.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Don't Rely on Gemini - Vin Packer

What’s your sign, girl?
Is it compatible to mine?

If your sign matches mine
Think of what we'll have
We'll be making babies together, forever

“What’s Your Sign, Girl?” - Danny Pearson/Tony Sepe

When I first moved to Chicago I religiously checked my own horoscope on my birthday in the Sun-Times because they include a section called “If Your Birthday Is Today…” and below would be a paragraph about what the coming year had in store for me – and the thousands of other people born in the same day, of course. I would cut it out, put it on my fridge, and review it on the day before my birthday. Invariably it was 90% wrong. But I never bothered to think about all those other people who were born on the same day in the sign of Sagittarius. How did the year work out for them?

That’s the premise of Don’t Rely on Gemini (1969), “a suspense and astrological novel” from the wildly inventive Vin Packer, aka M. J. (Marijane) Meaker. I didn’t for a second believe the hype on the paperback's cover promising “the most gripping spellbinder since Rosemary’s Baby.” For some reason throughout the early 1970s anything that remotely had anything to do with occult, supernatural or even New Age topics were tied to either Rosemary’s Baby (1967) or The Exorcist (1971) or both. The astrology element in this book is used merely to study the concept of parallel lives. A savvy and better-read editor would have done well to compare Packer’s novel to the works of Charles Dickens because coincidence and family secrets run rampant in this book. But would a quasi-literary analogy like that sell books? You bet your crystal talisman, it wouldn’t.

So let’s start with this concept of astro-twins living parallel lives. Astro-twins are unrelated people, complete strangers, who were born in the same year on the same date at the same time. Everyone has at least one astro-twin – well, actually everyone has hundreds, perhaps thousands of astro-twins. And that ought to make all you only children feel a lot less lonely, right? You have myriad siblings who are your astro-twins. But in all likelihood you will never meet them or know them. Regardless, they may be living a life similar to your own. That’s at the core of Don’t Rely on Gemini. And yes, the astro-twins we will meet are born under the sign of Gemini. According to all the mumbo jumbo we are forced to read Gemini is apparently one of the least favorable signs of the twelve in the crazy mixed-up world of the Zodiac. Not just unreliable and mercurial in temperament and obsessive about jobs and hobbies and projects, but apt to lose interest in those projects because of that gosh darned unreliable, mercurial personality.

Archie Gamble is the head writer of a TV special featuring the renowned astrologist Anna Muckermann. In order to add legitimacy to the show Mrs. Muckermann wants to talk about astro-twins and have a few on the air to talk about their lives. Mrs. M has documented evidence of several cases of astoundingly parallel lives in astro-twins that she offers up to Gamble, one case dates back to the days of George III. She insists that the TV show will be a huge draw if people are confronted with the truth of two strangers with the same star charts leading similar lives. This she claims will be proof that the rotation of the planets and other celestial activities do indeed rule our lives. When the moon in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars not only will peace guide the planets but the ratings will probably go sky high. Or so Mrs. Muckermann and Archie hope.

Staff members including Archie Gamble himself give out their birthday info and ads are placed in newspapers to lure in prospective volunteer astro-twins. There are several bites. The most fascinating comes from Margaret Dana who volunteers her husband Neal as a match to Gamble’s birthday data. She invites Gamble and his wife Dru to her home to meet her husband and discuss the possibility of appearing on the TV show. Sounds like fun, right? But this is a crime novel. Guess what follows? Worse than Mercury in retrograde, my friends. Being born in the house of Gemini with Saturn rising adds up to a volatile Molotov cocktail of a star chart as we will soon find out.

A fight happens at the Dana household just as the Gambles are about to arrive. In the course of the heated argument someone dies as the result of an accident and then – Ding, dong! It’s Archie and Dru on the front porch ready for dinner. And a dead body at the foot of a staircase inside. A bottle of wine is not going to solve this inconvenience.

But that’s not the worst of it. Neal Dana never knew about the Gambles coming because his wife was being coy in holding back the surprise of the evening. Neal, you see, was hoping that his wife was going out to her Italian lesson so he could have yet another secret tryst with his adorable mistress Penny. While making up a tale about his wife leaving the house and ushering the Gambles off his porch Dru Gamble hears a woman crying in a back room somewhere. She is sure it’s Margaret but she and Archie agree to leave because something certainly is not right and they are clearly not welcome. So the Gambles drive away.

Then… Archie loses control of his car going down the treacherous hill that leads to and from the Dana house. He crashes into a tree. They have to go back to the house and ask for help. Just as Neal Dana is about to bury the body in the backyard!

Don’t Rely on Gemini sounds initially like a lurid tale from the preposterous world of pulp fiction. Noirish to the core everyone seems utterly doomed amid the insanely surreal action and a pile-up of plot contrivances. Meaker, however, is playing with a loaded deck here. Each contrivance and coincidence is carefully calculated to twist the story toward her theme as she dares to play with superstition and fatalism in allowing her characters to surrender to fate rather than make well thought out decisions. She manages to juggle the ostensibly absurd moments with a very deadly combination of characters who are easily manipulated and those who give in to obsessive thoughts. Mrs. M proves to be perhaps the most dangerous person of all. In her zealous beliefs and dire pronouncements she contaminates the Gamble’s marriage and their relationship by planting seeds of doubt and foretelling impending doom if the couple does not follow her advice. Saturn is ruling their lives; failure to heed all the warnings will lead to disaster. The law of astro-twins does not lie!

The real conflict, however, has nothing to do with astrology. It is the Gambles’ perception of reality. They know nothing about Penny and Neal, unlike the reader, and they assume that a car that belongs to Penny is actually Margaret’s, that each time they see the green scarfed woman in the Ford Falcon they think they see Margaret. Dru learns of Margaret’s affair with a young man from a diary and letters she finds through yet another one of the many coincidences Meaker packs into her story. At the same time Archie is trying to decide whether Neal’s parallel life is worth putting on TV Dru is trying to protect Neal Dana from discovering his wife’s affair.

But, of course, we know what Archie and Dru don’t – that Margaret is dead. That Neal is having an affair of his own with Penny. Neal becomes dangerously obsessive about Margaret, his guilt overpowering him. Penny is fearful she is losing her older lover and she’s right. She can never hope to gain back his attention when he’s drowning in such a powerful nostalgia, she cannot compete with the memory of the perfect wife he is creating in his mind. Nothing can tarnish that memory just as no one can bring Margaret back to life. Someone is going to have to pay the price for that horrible accident. But wait…was it an accident? Didn’t Penny push Margaret down the stairs?

Don’t Rely on Gemini is not only an intriguing thematic exploration of the perils in surrendering to fate it’s also a pop culture smorgasbord of late 1960s America. The book is brimming with brand names, musicians, movie stars and authors including mystery writers Margery Allingham and Mary Stewart. Everything from various models of domestic and imported automobiles to Barry Farber, radio talk show host on WOR and WMCA. Even the plus size dresses and a joke about the maternity line of Lane Bryant crop up in the story. Rock and folk music play in the background of certain scenes as much as Archie’s favorite recordings of operatic arias. Neal disappears into his record collection as well in one of the telling moments playing up the parallel life angle. He plays selections from The Pajama Game original cast album or classical piano music from a William Kappell record to conjure up memories of his dead wife. At other times it feels as if the characters are like the intellectuals of Helen McCloy’s sophisticated Manhattan of the 1940s for the novel is also inundated with literary allusions covering Shakespeare, D. H. Lawrence and the 17th century poem “The Meditation” by – get ready for another coincidence – the obscure philosopher and theological poet John Norris. I could have written an entire blog post on "Things I Learned" alone there was so much popping up within this story.

This was the last novel Meaker wrote using her "Vin Packer" pen name.  The 1970s found her turning to juvenile novels which apparently were her most successful books.  I have acquired several of the Packer books over the years, but oddly this most recent one (originally purchased for last year's "Friday Fright Night" meme but proved less suited for that Halloween feature) is the first I've read.  I'll be digging out the other Vin Packer books I own and tearing through them throughout the rest of this year. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 19, 2021

FFB: The Hidden Light - Max Dalman

THE STORY: Loathsome portrait painter James Garrow is shot in his locked, bolted and barred studio. There are only two entrances and Garrow has the only two set of keys. One set of those keys is kept locked in a safe and only the painter has the combination. His death appears to be a suicide but we know better because in the opening chapter we know that someone entered the studio while Garrow was drawing a pastel portrait of a woman who was haunting his thoughts. And our detective hero David Marchant knows better when he breaks into the room and sees chalk dust on Garrow’s fingers but a visibly clean weapon. Who got into the room and shot Garrow and managed to leave it locked if the only keys were still in the room?

The Hidden Light (1937) of the title refers to a second mystery related to the murder. Just after Garrow was found dead a light went on in the room indicating that perhaps the murderer was still inside looking for something. The sun was beginning to go down and interior light from lamps was needed to see anything in the room. It was not a flashlight as the witnesses who reported seeing the light go on were servants well acquainted with the lamps in the room. A few minutes later it went out again and of course no one was in the room when Marchant and two others entered to find Garrow’s body. So we have a genuine locked room murder and an impossible problem of the “hidden light”.

THE CHARACTERS: David Marchant was hired by Garrow for an unknown reason but his summons was urgent and so he headed out to the Garrow home as quickly as he could. We, however, know that Garrow hired Marchant to investigate death threats sent to him in a series of anonymous letters. We see Garrow poring over these letters in the very first scene of Chapter One prior to his murder. Some letters were left out on his desk when he died, but when Marchant breaks into the studio the letters are gone. This is an interesting use of dramatic irony, a convention not often employed in traditional detective novels. Dalman allows the reader to know things ahead of the detective and we keep waiting for Marchant to stumble onto existence of the letters so he can make progress quicker than the police.

Kay Garrow, the painter’s much younger wife, was trapped in a loveless marriage suffering almost daily emotional abuse from her cruel husband, She becomes suspect number one in the eyes of the police. But Marchant is reluctant to accept this premise. In an another ironic moment Mrs. Garrow offers up the local gossip that she is having an affair with Richard Garstane, another artist Garrow hired to restore some frescoes in a chapel on the grounds. Garstane is emotionally unbalanced and perhaps more in love with Mrs. Garrow than she is aware of. Mrs. Garrow gives Marchant this information in an attempt to appear frank and honest. She swears she is innocent and asks Marchant if he will work for her in order to clear her name. He accepts on one condition – if he she discovers all evidence leads to her guilt then she must relent and allow him to turn her in to the police. Mrs. Garrow accepts his challenge.

But there are others in the house who have motive and opportunity. Jessica Garrow, the painter’s daughter from his first marriage, spent some time in a hidden alcove nearby the entrance to the studio supposedly reading a book. Peter Amberwood, Garrow’s secretary, was in a nearby room and was quick to come running when Marchant demanded to be let into Garrow’s studio. It is not hard to see that Jessica and Peter are trying to hide an intimate relationship; Marchant sees their sly glances at each other and is positive they are in love. They are caught in several lies and cover-ups before Marchant gets them to tell the truth of what they were doing the night of the murder.

In true Golden Age tradition the servants are far from minor characters in this story. Each one. from butler Keyne to maid Alice maid and even the cook. will all have important information to divulge to Marchant and the police before the culprit is uncovered. Alice, the maid, in fact has one of the most surprising secrets to reveal in the entirety of the book.

INNOVATIONS: And who is the woman in the pastel portrait that has been hidden under Garrow’s body? When Marchant finally turns over what he thought was a blank piece of paper and sees the face drawn in pastels he lets out a gasp. He recognizes the features of the woman and is truly taken aback. Dalman sends Marchant on a strange detour into the past lives of some of the suspects, uncovers false identities and a secret in Garrow’s past that will turn the case upside down.

The discovery of the anonymous letters coupled with the face in the pastel portrait lead to some marvelous detective work on Marchant’s part. He studies the postmarks on the envelopes, compares the towns to train schedules and pinpoints Bristol as a hub from where the letter writer must have been based. Once in Bristol he sets to work in libraries digging into Garrow’s past looking for a link to Bristol. This section is one of the cleverest and most exciting parts of the novel.

SUMMATION: The Hidden Light was my third Max Dalman mystery and, coincidentally, Dalman’s third mystery in his chronological output. The story is highly entertaining, the action never flags and all of the characters are fascinating to read about. Not a dullard in the bunch. Dalman almost succeeded in being as clever as he was in Poison Unknown which was my first and still my favorite of the Dalman detective novels. But I will have to admit that when it came to the denouement in The Hidden Light much of what was so intriguing and puzzling was revealed to be distressingly prosaic. The solution to the locked room is hardly brilliant, the mystery of the hidden light is rather obvious, and the identity of the villain relies on one of the hoariest clichés. I literally groaned. It’s so laughably bad that I’ve only encountered it three times in the hundreds of books I’ve read. Most mystery writers dare not ever employ it for fear of being ridiculed. Ah well…

Moving onto mystery number four in my small pile of Max Dalman books. He can write well and he is often genuinely imaginative with ingenious methods of detection. Hoping I find one as dazzling as Poison Unknown in the next three books I’ve lined up.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Cherry Harvest – E. H. Clements

In the intriguing opening of Cherry Harvest (1944) set on a train filled with soldiers Duncan Carey in a fit of nostalgia is headed to Burbury Manor. He remembers visiting the place as a child and has fond memories, especially of its cherry orchard. He had been ordered to take a leave of absence from his job for what is vaguely hinted as some sort of nervous breakdown. A surprise is in store for him when he learns from Anthony Lord, one of his fellow train passengers, that Burbury has been transformed into Cleeve School, a boarding school for girls, and that most of the students have been evacuated. Lord is on his way to visit his music teacher girlfriend at the school and to help her with the few girls remaining behind waiting for relatives to claim them. Also in this opening chapter we learn that two sets of parents, the Passmores and the Willows, are headed to Burbury to pick up their daughters. Rounding out the varied cast of characters are Miss Hartland travelling with her Skye terrier to visit little Jill Mannister, who is the daughter of her friend Captain Mannister and Alan Brent, who also is a friend of Mannister’s. And of course there are the members of the school staff led primarily by headmistress Adela Knowles and music teacher Celia Staire. Ultimately, the mystery at the heart of Cherry Harvest is to ascertain Carey’s true reason for visiting Burbury, what his real job is and why he had the breakdown.

Languorous and nostalgia filled this protracted exposition introduces many characters and sets up myriad relationships. But literally nothing happens for the first 80 or so pages amid all the introductions. There is, however, plenty of dialogue: chit chat and gossip about the parent’s children, commentary on the war, tidbits about how railway cars are set up during wartime (no restaurant car, by the way, due to food rationing), on and on.

Where was Alister Woodhead, Clements’ series character, in all of this? I was beginning to be haunted by Carolyn Wells and her habit of waiting until the last third of the book before she inserts the real protagonist detective into the story. Woodhead does not appear until the middle of the third section titled “Sunday” in this four-sectioned book that takes place over a long weekend. The real action of the book does not pick up until after the characters arrive at the school and the students and teachers are introduced all of which lasts well into the “Sunday” section. Then suddenly poor Thomas, the dim-witted but friendly groundskeeper at Cleeve, is found shot. His body is at nearby a lever that controls a contraption called the bird-scarer – a conglomeration of tin cans and scrap metal fitted into the branches of the cherry trees in order to frighten away marauding jays and other birds who eat the cherries. How he was killed is a slight mystery and is rather important to the underlying mysteries related to Carey’s arrival. But none of that is fully explained until Woodhead shows up.

One of my primary problems with the way Clements chooses to tell her story is her insistence on having her characters talk nonstop in relating incidents that occurred offstage without the reader’s knowledge. This is the “Greek tragedy syndrome” of writing crime fiction that I loathe. I would prefer that the reader actually see the events occur rather than have two or three people talk about it to one another after the fact. When Clements does decide to give us action as it happens (about three times over the course of the novel's length) she is in high suspense mode. It is disappointing that she opts for more talk and less action for Clements has a true talent for action and creating an eerie atmosphere at Cleeve School. The story could have been that much more suspenseful and less satirical given the gravitas of her story. A man has suffered from nervous exhaustion while devoting himself to military secrets and inventions and has lost his memory. Another man has been gruesomely killed and is practically forgotten the moment he dies. But Clements would rather focus on the antics of the girls, their cutesy talk and competition in making friends with Duncan Carey, and the satiric humor embodied in Stella Passmore who represents a kind of ridiculous bourgeoisie British woman obsessed with propriety, status and materialism.

Cherry Harvest is a wartime novel given to fine detail about the intrusion of the military into British mundane routine, but it barely touches on detective fiction novel structure and conventions. True the story includes a smidgen of espionage, but it is so wispy and nebulous in that department that it barely exists. Alister Woodhead after his late entrance does step in as if he owns the place and sorts out the confusing mess of why Carey is there, why he is being hounded by mysterious and shadowy figures, as well as finding out why Thomas was shot and how the murder happened. The bird-scarer machine figures prominently and may hold the key to all the various puzzles and mysteries. But the crime and various mysteries serve almost as background while it is relationships and character that dominate the narrative.

Having only sampled this one book of the three I own I’m hesitant to try the others. I hope the languorous storytelling is a signature of only this particular title in the series. Clements has a flair for creating suspense and building atmosphere when she puts her mind to it. She seems to understand the concept of the MacGuffin fairly well and uses it very much the way Hitchcock does in his movies as that special something that the characters must go after and try to possess but which matters little to the viewer or, in this case, the reader. We know very little about this invention of Carey’s other than two words. Not why it is important to the war effort nor what it does nor anything really.

When not focusing on the main plot the writing, especially the first two thirds, is overloaded with lighthearted satire and archness reminiscent of Christianna Brand, Georgette Heyer and Gladys Mitchell. The more I read the more I found in common with Mitchell. Is it a coincidence that the headmistress’ first name is Adela? That the murder is not really a murder? That hidden motives are explained by 1940s style pop psychology? Perhaps I read too much into these things creating links where none really exist.

There is next to nothing about Eileen Helen Clements (1905 – 1993) on the internet. She has no interesting biographical tidbits found on any of the dust jackets of the few books I own. I can find no obituary online and the sparse coverage of her books came from Kirkus Reviews, as is usual with that journal the articles are ultra terse. Virginia Kirkus seemed to like the books giving favorable comments to the four Clements novels she reviewed over a five year period. She particularly liked the characterization of the children in Cherry Harvest.

Like Gladys Mitchell, the writer E. H. Clements most resembles in style and approach to crime fiction, only a handful of her books were published in the US and none of them received paperback reprint editions. This may be due to the thoroughly British flavor to the characters and events in her books that can sometimes be off-putting to American readers. They just may not have sold well at all during the war years. After Cherry Harvest was published none of the remaining eleven titles in the Alister Woodhead series appeared in the US.

I first learned about Clements and Alister Woodhead from the fan fiction website Spy Guys and Gals devoted to a wide range of US and UK spy thrillers and novels of espionage. This first book I sampled seemed a blend of detective novel – albeit rather obliquely structured – and some traces of espionage in the pursuit of a MacGuffin. I’m curious how Clements treated the other plots in the books that followed Cherry Harvest which is only the second appearance of Woodhead. He appears in two other novels previous to this, one of which has no crime plot (Bright Intervals, 1941) and tells the story of his first year of marriage to Elizabeth. It will be interesting to see if Clements turns out to be the Gladys Mitchell of WW2 era espionage fiction. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 12, 2021

FFB: Someone from the Past – Margot Bennett

Sarah Lampson tells her friend and co-worker, Nancy Graham of some threatening anonymous letters. The gist is that the writer is one of her former lovers and he’s planning on killing her. The next day Sarah is found shot in her bedroom. Nancy’s current boyfriend Donald says he was there and found Sarah’s body. Nancy who we know is romantically interested in Donald immediately heads to the apartment (she has a key in case of emergency) and covers up all traces of Donald’s presence. But she lingers too long and just as she is about to leave she hears a key in the lock of the front door. So begins Nancy’s descent into a world of lies, deceit, and betrayal.

When the police begin their investigation Nancy is number one on the list. No amount of clever lies can dissuade them from thinking she is involved in the murder – if not the actual culprit then knowing more about the crime than she’s willing to reveal to the police. They have lots of questions for her and the keen eyed lieutenant has already noticed that Nancy has most likely been cleaning up around the apartment. But she is resolute. Nancy keeps lying and fabricating stories all to cover up for Donald.

Someone from the Past (1958) is engaging and aspires to be a suspenseful crime novel in the Hitchcockian vein. We know Nancy is innocent and shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing but we want her to get away with her cover-up. The first scene in the book showed Nancy and Donald together as Sarah was showing off her latest man, someone she is planning to marry. It looks as if Nancy and Donald are a good pair, but when Donald hears of the impending marriage he begins to re-examine his past affair with Sarah. It is quite possible that Donald really is guilty though he has no real memory of the night he spent with Sarah just before he found her dead body.

The novel works best when Nancy is the sole focus of the novel. She is quick witted and manages to lie cleverly in order to get the police to pay attention to her behavior and look away from Donald. But someone – the real killer, we are sure – is privy to some knowledge and is exploiting the police interest in Nancy by planting evidence and making it seem as if Nancy killed Sarah. Circumstances force Nancy to change her devious plans almost every hour and she begins to get careless. The killer seems to be a watching her every move but she is unsure exactly who it is among the small set of suspects. This all had so much potential to be a real edge of your seat thriller. But Bennett is much more interested in relationships. And that’s the major fault of the book for me.

When Sarah’s men enter the story the dialogue rehashes old relationships and the story lags. Sadly it actually gets dull and I almost gave up on it. We go into the past and find out how screwed up the men are and how Sarah exploited their affection and desire for her own purposes. I was irritated by the emphasis on backstory that infiltrated just as the cover-up and complications of the killer trying to frame Nancy were getting interesting. Bennett has a literary style with a rich vocabulary and love of imagery. She also has flair for dramatic action but unfortunately chooses to explore her characters’ thoughts over creating action and allowing this to reveal character. Directly after a nifty sequence like the part where Nancy tries to dispose of the gun she believes is the murder weapon we get a scene where we must listen to the vain actor Mike, Sarah’s first husband, talk about his pathetic life as a TV actor and endure Nancy’s irritation and annoyance as he flaunts his ego while dropping hints that he knows what Nancy is up to. I guess Bennett must think this is a modern approach to blending character scenes in a richly complex crime plot, but for me I was just as annoyed as Nancy every time Mike showed up at her door.

The reader would do well to pay attention to Bennett’s love of language for that turns out to be one of the only clues that leads Nancy to discovering who killed Sarah. If you’re particularly adept at spotting literary allusions and know your mid-20th century British poets very well you just might tumble onto the big clue very early in the book and spot the killer 140 pages before Nancy does. While the killer comes as somewhat of a surprise this clue is so esoteric that I really can’t call it “fair play.” And when the melodramatic ending comes it is closely followed by a sequence that fairly ruins the book. Nancy comes to a decision that to me makes utterly no sense at all. It pops up purely for the sake of offering what Bennet must think was a requisite happy ending. I didn’t believe it for a second and I can’t believe that Nancy would have been happy with her decision no matter what Bennett writes in the final sentences.

Someone from the Past earned Margot Bennett a CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of 1958. Looking at the other books on the list I wonder if this was a sign of the burgeoning trend of crime author societies becoming more interested in rewarding literary novels of crime rather than straightforward crime novels that emphasize police procedure and puzzling plots. Ultimately Someone from the Past is a very mixed bag and not at all the kind of book I think deserving of an award for best of any year. Mostly because of that ending.

Based on mystery blog reviews I know many readers out there have read and enjoyed Bennett’s most recently reprinted book The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955). I’ve reserved the only copy available at the Chicago Public Library and I’m waiting for it to come my way. Then I’ll see if her early work is any better. I’ve also found a cheap copy of The Widow of Bath (1952) her much lauded and very popular crime novel that was reprinted multiple times during her lifetime. I’ll be reviewing that book next month. So final verdict on Margot Bennett has yet to be announced here, but I am leaning towards a thumbs up based solely on Someone from the Past. Ironically, this book, her only award winning work of fiction, turns out to be her final crime novel. It was followed by three more books -- one science fiction, one mainstream novel, and one non-fiction book about the science of radioactivity -- published over a span of ten years after Someone from the Past.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

NEW STUFF: The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne – Elsa Hart

Collector mania. Why have I read yet another book about an aspect of my own life? Am I really that self-obsessed? Must I read about collecting in order to understand my own obsession with obscure genre fiction and my almost pathological acquisition of hundreds of these books? Do I really need to read one more novelist’s ideas about the psychology of monomania? Yes to all questions! And after all this book is set in the 18th century. (OK, that was just a feeble excuse to look the other way when faced with answering those questions I posed) But guess what? This was quite a page turner. And the best part? The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne (2020) is a legitimate detective novel.

Until I stumbled across Elsa Hart’s fourth novel in the library I knew nothing of her or her books. According to the jacket blurb and her bio she has written three other mystery novels featuring Li Du, a librarian of 18th century China living in exile near the Tibetan border who accidentally becomes a detective. The subject matter of each of those books seemed a bit eggheady to me and would not have appealed to me. But The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne despite its possibly dreary 18th century setting and a self-consciously decorous writing style won me over almost immediately. Hart knows how to tell an engaging story, creates lively and flawed characters, is masterful with her plotting and actually employs fair play detective novel conventions. I devoured this book the way a mad collector goes after a rare specimen to complete a set of wondrous objects.

Cecily Kay travels from her ex-patriated home in Smyrna where her husband is a diplomat to London in order to study the collection of plants in the awe-inspiring and vast collection of oddities in the museum like home of Barnaby Mayne. While conducting a tour of his home for Cecily and other like-minded collectors there to marvel at the shells, plants, insects, taxidermized animals and esoteric artwork Mayne is distracted by an urgent message. He excuses himself allowing his guests to wander his home on their own. Shortly afterward he is found brutally murdered in his private study. His assistant is found in the room holding a knife in his hand and screams out “I killed him!” and then flees.

Is it all over before it has even begun? Oh no, my friends. Cecily has noticed things that just don’t add up. She disbelieves the confession from the meek assistant and is convinced he is protecting someone. She and her friend Meacan, a talented illustrator hired to do some drawings of Mayne’s collection, turn amateur detectives to ferret out the truth. When Lady Mayne arrives to take care of her dead husband’s estate she is encouraged to have the collection catalogued. Meacan and Cecily are quickly appointed to undertake the daunting project. Their presence is the house then allows them opportunity to investigate the murder site. They can also pore over the rooms without being questioned as they simultaneously carry out the cataloguing task and hunt for evidence the police might have overlooked since they have in custody the confessor and think the case is closed.

The suspects are numerous but mostly confined to the men and one woman who were present in the house during the tour. Over the course of their sleuthing and probing Cecily and Meacan uncover an investment project that is financing the search for sunken treasure at a shipwreck, a cabal of occultists who may have been involved in secret rituals, and meet with a sinister coffee house owner who is part con man and part vigilante. Hart gives us an abundance of thriller conventions like abduction and eleventh hour rescues in addition to the requisite, sometimes slyly underhanded, questioning as part of the murder investigation.

And while there are some well-placed clues that I missed the book suffers from one of the cardinal sins of this type of adventure thriller – a not so well hidden villain.  I immediately suspected one character the moment he first appeared and was proven correct. I didn’t have to examine his motives or behavior, My targeting him was based solely on the fact that he exemplifies a certain archetype found in Gothic and neo-Gothic novels from which The Cabinet of Barnaby Mayne has most definitely evolved whether Hart is conscious of it or not. When I see that type of character in a novel of this sort I always expect the worst outcome, underhanded manipulations of even seemingly good actions.

On the final page Cecily mentions she has received a letter about the current tenants fleeing her home that she and her husband leased while they were in Smyrna. The letter writer implies something rather mysterious was going on. She offers Meacan a chance to travel with her and investigate the reason why the family left. This most likely indicates a sequel in the works. Perhaps the second book of another trilogy? I’ll be sure to check out the next adventure of Cecily Kay and Meacan. Even with its obvious villain this was one entertaining contemporary mystery novel -- well written with a couple of excellent lead characters and a cast of eccentric people who hide unexpected secrets and so detailed and steeped in its milieu that I felt I was reading a book written centuries ago rather than only last year. Elsa Hart is worth watching. I may even try one of the Li Du mystery novels now.

Friday, February 5, 2021

FFB: Ducats in Her Coffin - Thurman Warriner

THE STORY: Patricia Shearstone meets Mr. Ambo by chance in an antiquarian bookshop. She chooses to confide in him based solely on his “uncle-like” appearance and demeanor. The 17 year-old is fear for her life. Her sister Rosalind disappeared three days ago and Patricia thinks someone killed her. Patricia fled home and today on her way to the bookshop someone tried to run her over with a car. The teenager then tops off her alarming story with this confession: “We know of a Secret and we’re being targeted by someone who needs to protect that secret.” After some discussion, words of advice, and much soul searching Mr. Ambo reluctantly agrees to shelter Patricia, but before he can tell her of his plan she runs away. She leaves a note apologizing but does not reveal where she’s headed. That day Rosalind’s battered body is found in the doorway of a local shop. Apparently, everything Patricia said was true. Mr. Ambo enlists the help of his dear friend private eye John Scotter and his lovely secretary and assistant Lottie to find the runaway teen before she becomes victim number two.

THE CHARACTERS: Ducats in Her Coffin (1951) is the second detective novel by Thurman Warriner. Like the debut crime novel Method in his Murder (1950) the trio of detectives once again appear as the tag team of sleuths – Charles Ambo, a septuagenarian book collector; John Franklin Cornelius Scotter, private eye; and Lottie, Scotter’s Gal Friday and primary leg man…uh, woman. Archdeacon Toft who seemed to do some armchair detective work in the first book also briefly appears but has no real input in this story. Instead, the crew travel to Urmsbury when Lottie's research reveals a Canon Toft who lives there.  He is the Archdeacon's brother Gilbert and is a veritable encyclopedia on the Shearstone family, their profitable quarry business and an odd society founded by one of the deceased Shearstones.

To give you an idea of the kind of complexity that face our heroes in this wildly inventive case here is a summary from Scotter:  "Things are beginning to shape up. Till we came down here, we'd hit a brick wall straight in front of our noses.  All we'd got was a lot Girls' Own Paper stuff about a secret... Now we know there's been enough dirty work in the Shearstone family to warrant a bagful of murders.  A ravin' maniac, one son show's left a Naboth's vineyard, won't sell and skips the country. A hunk of land in the middle of the family quarries that still belongs to him. Another son who starts a phoney society and stands to make about ten fortunes on the side.  A family vault in a deserted church. A house that's never been used since it was built, except for Army stoes and wenching. A grandson who's married a screwy widow with a moron s daughter-- what more do you want?"

We learn of the eccentric patriarch Barnaby Shearstone, father to the three living Shearstone brothers, who built the “monstrosity” of a church that sits in the middle of an island above the quarry surrounded by four identical houses built for his sons. Two sons still live in the homes – brothers Edgar and Simeon – while the third, Amos, has not been heard of in decades. Whether he is alive or dead no one is certain. All that is known is he was upset how the business and property was dispersed unequally among his brothers and in a fit of anger he left England and dropped all contact with his family.

Canon Toft spends much of his lecturing on the strange political group founded by Barnaby - The Society of Political Rationalists.  It sounds like a forward thinking society that intends to enact change through lectures and education, but as Toft describes it in detail we learn it is actually a fraudulent charitable organization making money off of its gullible members sizable donations of money and gifts of jewelry. It also espouses some wildly nationalist views that incorporate racism, xenophobia and paranoid conspiracy theories. It is rather obvious to Mr. Ambo and Scotter that the SPR is most likely at the heart of the "secret" that Patricia and Rosalind uncovered and what led to Rosalind's violent death.

First among the many Shearstones the trio of detectives questions about the missing Patricia is her invalid father Madoc and later her haughty stepmother Judith.  There is also Manda, trailing around the outskirts of the action, who is Judith's daughter from her first husband and Patricia and Rosalind's stepsister.  Manda seems a cipher at first but will prove to be instrumental to the unravelling of the various mysteries.

Warriner has a field day with the eccentric Shearstone family. Scotter, who is never one to suffer fools gladly and always speaks his mind, has some great scenes throughout the book. He has some choice words about the rather detestable Judith Shearstone, a woman who married into the Shearstone family for money only. Then there is Simeon, one of Patricia's many uncles, perhaps the most vile of this cast of oddballs, a raving nationalist who is revealed to be selfish, craven and whining. He is the most rabid member of the SPR and has some speeches that no doubt will remind current events minded readers of the nonsense that fuels contemporary conspiracy theories.

INNOVATIONS: Each time I read one of Warriner’s detective novels I marvel at how well he manages to divvy up the action between his three sleuths. Each gets their chance to take center stage with action scenes that always add to the solution and move the story forward to its somewhat surprising finale. Much of the book is taken up with group confab scenes in which our primary three heroes all discuss their most recent findings, mulling over theories, discarding suspects when alibis prove truthful, and trying to make sense of some of the oddities that make the crimes so mysterious. While the bulk of these discussions tend to be a war of wits and opinions between Ambo and Scotter Lottie is never left in the shadows. In fact, she really shines in this book, both literally and metaphorically. Lottie brings a welcome light and rays of positivity to a tale that is mostly about a wicked family poisoned by greed and betrayal.

The title is taken from some lines Shylock says in Act 3 of The Merchant of Venice. Used as the novel’s epigraph the reference was a bit oblique even as a metaphor for me. Rest assured it is fully explained in the last paragraphs of the final chapter. They provide a neat and ironic coda to all that proceeded.

QUOTES: The glare he gave [Judith Shearstone] would have withered a Rochdale aspidistra.

“I’ve met some bright beauties in my long and illustrious career,” Scotter said as they encountered the outer air, “but that bird takes the toilet soap.”

Simeon wasn’t lying, consciously. Like most politicians, he merely had an elastic conception of truth. Truth, to Simeon, was whatever happened to be most desirable of belief at any given moment.

Simeon’s nationalist rant:  “We throw our empire to the wolves without and the opportunists within. We are perishing as the Romans perished. We bow and scrape to a system that has abolished the dignity of man and enslaved half the world. We toy with the same system ourselves; we make a man no more than a leaf on the tree of State.” He paused briefly. “But because there is no life, no volition, no powers of reproductivity in this monster we are creating, it must run down and rust when its initial impetus is exhausted. And in that moment civilisation will collapse.”

It was one of the rare moments when [Mr. Ambo] felt very close to Scotter, when all the differences between them seemed unimportant.

THINGS I LEARNED: Scotter’s dialogue is rich with colorful British regionalisms and occasional samples of Cockney rhyming slang. He says that Patricia has gone for a ball of chalk which I assumed meant she ran away. A check of a rhyming slang dictionary proved me right when it revealed that “ball of chalk” translates to walk. The phrase bob-and-nob, however, is not rhyming slang but is quite literal slang. It means a “shilling a head.”

The unusual word panjandrum turned up in one of Scotter’s frequent strings of bizarre insults. It was preceded a completely made up person and I figured the word was also nonsense. It is, but it was invented not by Warriner but Samuel Foote, an 18th century actor, as a memory test for fellow actor Charles Macklin. Merriam-Webster defines panjandrum as “a powerful personage or pretentious official” and they go on to cite the Oxford English Dictionary for the etymological history of the word. Accomplished actor and memory braggadocio Macklin claimed that he could repeat anything verbatim if it was spoken to him only once. Foote devised the following speech littered with nonsense words of his own invention: “And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top.” He spoke the short speech to Macklin who of course echoed the words flawlessly. That speech appeared in print 75 years later in a book a of stories for children by Maria Edgeworth. Then it took another 25 years before panjandrum entered the language. I’ve not seen it in print until I read this book but Merriam-Webster cites usages as recent as 2018 in two separate issues of The Economist. I’ll bet it was the same esoteric writer in each case.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

NEW STUFF: The Readers' Room - Antoine Laurain

Antoine Laurain said in a recent interview on the Words with Writers website that he believes “…we need fairy tales not only for children, but for grown-ups too” and that “Novels have to be better than real life.” His most recent novel The Readers’ Room (2020), published in France as Le service des manuscrits, exemplifies both these beliefs. Additionally, Laurain also explores the power fiction has over real life. Is it possible for fiction to affect reality? Can fiction create reality from a story simply existing in a book?

Laurain has had a surreal experience with this himself. He reports that his prize-winning novel The President’s Hat (2012) was an example of fiction echoing reality without the author’s knowledge. A photographer told him that he owned Mitterrand’s hat. He told a story of how he was assigned to shoot photos of Mitterrand at a meeting in Provence back in the 80s. While on a smoke break away from the audience the photographer saw the president’s limousine and the door was open. The black hat was on the seat and just like Laurain’s protagonist the photographer was compelled to take the hat. He kept it for all those years. Laurain decided they would photograph the hat for the cover of his book. Prior to the photography session he looked inside the hat and there were the initials F.M. just as in his book.

In The Readers’ Room fictional events begin to replicate in real life. Sugar Flowers, a literary novel published to much acclaim, has been shortlisted for a nationally renowned French literary prize and is causing problems for the publisher because the mysteriously reclusive writer cannot be located. While the publisher tries to track down the author and get him (or her…the writer has the androgynous name of Camille Désencres and has never been seen by anyone) the novel’s action begins to take shape in real life. The story is of vengeful unnamed killer who murders several men by shooting them execution style with an old WW2 era German luger. When men are found murdered in exactly the same method as described in the novel, even down to the Nazi initials SS etched into the bullets, Violaine LePage, the director of manuscript services and the person responsible for finding the writer Désencres, comes under investigation by homicide detective Sophie Tanche.

While the book models itself on the conventions of detective fiction it is a phantasmagorical genre blending novel more concerned with identity, love and family secrets. Violaine is suffering from a crushed leg and PTSD after a horrific plane crash. She seeks help from her psychotherapist amusingly named Dr. Pierre Stein who helps her piece together the lapses in her erratic memory and reminds her of several behaviors and incidents that shock Violaine. As she undergoes her treatment she is alternately appalled and mystified by Stein’s revelations. Simultaneously she is still trying to find the elusive Camille Désencres. Oddly enough Violaine is convinced Camille is a woman. But why so sure of that one fact and unable to remember so much about herself?

The less known about the rest of this intriguing plot the more enjoyment the reader will gain from the multiple storylines. In its brief 176 pages Laurain has densely packed meaning and incident into his story. Violaine toils away at the mystery of the missing author while pondering the mystery of herself. Sophie Tanche and her policeman colleague trade theories about crime solving in both “real life” and the world of books. Maigret is brought up several times. And books and authors are, of course, discussed repeatedly. We even get a sampling of paragraphs from Sugar Flowers in which Laurain gets to experiment with style, syntax and poetic metaphor in the guise of “Camille Désencres”. I’m sure it was a challenge for translators Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce, and Polly Mackintosh to capture the flavor of a different writer in those three or four sections.

Antoine Laurain
photo © 2013, Marissa Bell Toffoli

The characters are as wildly imagined as the premise of the main story as well as the plot of the novel within the novel. From Beatrice, the elderly volunteer reader who manages to find true gems in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts to Edouard, the interior designer who comes to solve the problem of bookshelves in the readers’ room and in the process falls in love with Violaine everyone in the book is a unique individual. All of them are utterly believable despite all their quirks and idiosyncrasies which indeed make them all the more attractive and likeable.

It is rare for me these days to find works of contemporary fiction that are genuinely imaginative as uniquely original, that celebrate imagination, that are written first and foremost to transcend reality rather than to merely reflect it. “Novels have to be better than real life,” Laurain has said. A philosophy I fully agree with. And this novel is truly better than the reality we all are facing in this era of the pandemic. Treat yourself to something unique and refreshing and uplifting for a change. You so very much deserve it. And Laurain will be very happy to have gained another lifelong fan.